Southern hospitality is not only an American phenomenon. In Sicily, you may be cut in line mercilessly at the post office or pharmacy, but you will also find some of the most open and hospitable people I’ve ever met.
My first night in Catania, I stayed in a hotel before moving into our apartment. I was tired, jet-lagged, and nervous to be in a new place all by myself. Online reviews had said I would have to carry my suitcase up three flights of stairs to get to my room, but I couldn’t even open the front gate of the hotel.
The hotel manager Oscar came to my rescue. He explained that to open the gate, I had to first pull, then push (a method which everyone else seemed to already know. This information would come in handy for other gates I encountered in Catania). He also dragged my huge suitcase up the never-ending flight of stairs.
In my room, I immediately passed out from exhaustion, but when I woke up the next morning, the hospitality continued. Oscar served me a huge breakfast—a crème-filled croissant, an entire loaf of bread with jam or cheese, cappuccino, and fruit juice. When it was time for me to go, he gave me directions to find my apartment, carried my suitcase downstairs for me, and offered to give me a ride. I thanked him and declined his offer—surely he was just being polite.
But as I lugged my suitcase along the sidewalk, I got confused and wondered if I had missed the correct street. Suddenly I heard someone behind me. “May!” It was Oscar. I had gone the wrong way, and he had run after me to tell me. He insisted that I let him carry my suitcase, and he led me to my new apartment—which turned out to be right next to the hotel! I thanked him again, hardly beleiving how much he had gone out of his way for me. He told me to come visit the hotel anytime for a coffee.
Again, I assumed this was just a polite formality. But after living in Catania for two months, I now understand that Oscar was not an exception, but an accurate representation of Sicilian hospitality. I really am welcome at his hotel for coffee anytime.
Since that first day, I have witnessed all sorts of kind acts that would be unheard of at home. For class one day, another student, Sam, and I had to interview a person in the street. The person we found insisted on buying us coffee while we asked our questions. We ended up sitting at a café with him for half an hour and he promised to take us on a tour of Catania.
I soon forgot about his promise.
That Friday, though, he called and took all six CET students on a perfect tour of the city—buying us gelato from his favorite gelateria (which is now our favorite gelateria), showing us a historic castle on the sea, and a cool restaurant where you can eat underground in a grotto.
I am still surprised every time someone follows through on an offer like that. It happens all the time—when we accidentally became part of a birthday party that was happening in the Piazza, when our professors insisted on taking us out for coffee in the middle of class, when the doctor gave me a ride home after my appointment. Sicilians may seem tough at first, but they take hospitality to a whole new level, in a way that seems completely natural for them. It’s hard for me to get used to.
What does it say about our culture that I am so shocked every time I witness this kindness? Maybe the rest of the world needs to take a lesson from the Sicilians. As for me, I am going to take Oscar up on his offer of coffee at the hotel.